Rural women explain Amy McGrath’s big Kentucky win

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Photo credit: Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

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Two weeks after Amy McGrath’s unlikely primary win in Kentucky’s 6th District—notching a W in all 18 rural counties and setting her up for a midterm showdown with GOP incumbent Andy Barr—the potential blue wave we keep hearing about nationally is finally beginning to emerge locally.

I live in Anderson County, a place where voters often feel invisible; a place where Republicans pocket our votes like spare change and Democrats can’t afford to waste their pennies. Seeing candidates out here is as rare as good wifi.

And yet, McGrath held several events here over these last many months, even as voters, skeptical of the attention, often approached her as more foe than friend. What was she doing here? Where was she on guns, on abortion and women’s rights, on healthcare and infrastructure and teacher salaries and pensions, on our horrifying opioid crisis? And if by some miracle she made it past the primary, what was her plan to defeat Barr?

We did our damnedest to rattle her, and failed. She kept coming back.

Billy Piper, former chief of staff to Senator Mitch McConnell, dismissed McGrath’s win outright. “I think that the Democrats,” Piper said, “have nominated the worst possible candidate they could have nominated.”

The worst possible candidate, really? Did Piper have a point? I decided to ask the Kentuckians least likely to be asked by Piper or anyone else: rural women.

Molly, a former schoolteacher: “When Lt. Colonel McGrath agreed to visit with a roomful of Anderson County Democrats early in her campaign I was surprised, but proud. I was also concerned that the ‘real her’ compared to her brilliant candidacy announcement, would be disappointing. But we got the real Amy, and she was great. And the best part? I was able to meet and talk with her five times, without leaving the county, and I met the same real Amy every time. She really did listen and learn.”

Pam, a retired physician: “You don’t have to be a politician to be well-read and well-informed with thoughtful ideas about how to improve our country. Amy broke a glass ceiling, as did her mother, yet does not carry a chip on her shoulder. She seems real when you meet her in person, and I think she can beat the Republican which is important. Plus, we have real infrastructure needs (like high speed internet) which have been ignored.”

Maxye, a former magazine editor: “Amy campaigned in every county in the 6th, and has offices in several of them. She was extremely visible and is very personable. I doubt that any of us has seen, much less met, any of the other candidates in person.”

Sallie, an environmentalist and former technical writer: “Anyone who meets Amy would be hard-pressed not to vote for her. I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered such a powerful mix of earnestness, compassion, intelligence, and vigor. I liked all three of the major Democratic candidates, but she blew me away. She looks you in the eye, she listens, and she doesn’t shy away from expressing an opinion, instead of parroting some mushy political platitude. If she continues to connect personally with both rural and urban voters, I think she has a real chance to beat Andy Barr.”

Margaret, counselor to families suffering from addiction: “Amy focused on our area and the fact that we need to focus on our strengths. She was extremely well-informed and made me feel like she was a centrist. This is how you can win in Kentucky. This is our only hope. She seemed tireless and traveled to every area she could. We support her and will be volunteering to help her.”

Talking to these women, I am reminded of the opening lines in Judith Guest’s 1976 novel, ORDINARY PEOPLE. “To have a reason to get up in the morning, it is necessary to possess a guiding principle. A belief of some kind. A bumper sticker, if you will.”

Billy Piper is wrong. We are believers out here in the rural counties. We have our principles. We count. And we are seeing a lot of bumper stickers that read: Amy McGrath for Congress.

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You can find more information on Lt. Col. McGrath here.

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The Cancer of Columbine

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Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas. Credit KTRK-TV

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There they were in the Breaking News live-shot, terrified American teenagers lined up like criminals on the sprawling green lawn of their high school, following the commands of law enforcement by emptying the contents of their backpacks then doing the perp walk, single file, arms raised high, fingers spread wide, demonstrating their innocence.

Another school shooting. Santa Fe, Texas.

As a New York Times reporter wrote, this is what school looks like now. “Lockdown drills, active shooter drills. It’s a procedure they have learned, and what you are seeing is a kind of horrible field trip, a deadly exam. You send your kids to school, and one of the things they learn is how not to die.”

This summer I will go to my 35 year high school reunion, and it occurs to me that these are the things I worried about from 1979 to 1983: Will I ever get more than a C in Mr. Wittenborn’s science class? How many lunches can I afford this week? What if I don’t make the basketball team and, if I do, how will I get home from practice? Will Shawn ask me to the homecoming dance? Can I fake my mom’s signature on a “this is why she’s late” note? Will John’s Corner Grocery give me a job before I turn 16 so I can save $800 to buy an old green Gremlin?

What I did not worry about, what none of us could fathom back then, was getting gunned down in art class.

“It’s not the guns,” we insist, banking upon our memories of the past. We say things like, “I grew up with guns,” or “we never locked up our guns,” or “I was bullied but I never shot anybody,” or “I drove to school with guns in my truck.”

We cannot fathom getting gunned down in art class because we grew up before April 20, 1999. We grew up before Columbine.

Columbine (and every mass shooting for two decades after) made the unthinkable thinkable. You can do something about the bullies, about feeling like a nobody; you can teach that girl who embarrassed you a lesson; you can put those smug, arrogant jocks in their place; you can gun down the mean teacher. Guns don’t kill people, people kill people, and by-God you’re a boy with easy access to weapons and you know how to use them. You could be famous. And what is more quintessentially American in 2018 than our beloved 2nd Amendment paired with the fantasy of eternal fame?

Columbine was our Stage I cancer, and it keeps metastasizing and killing us because we have made a choice to wrap ourselves in the constitution and do nothing.

After the mass shooting in Santa Fe, when asked if she was surprised it happened at her school, one little girl said heartbreakingly no, “It’s been happening everywhere. I’ve always kind of felt like eventually it was going to happen here too.”

As if on cue, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick then said, “There are too many entrances and too many exits to our over 8,000 campuses …maybe we need to look at limiting the entrances and exits to our schools.”

When I heard this, I imagined the horrified reaction of my friend Kim, a retired fire chief. Kim, who scared me into rarely lighting candles and warned about the dangers of portable propane. What would he say about a thousand kids and teachers locked in a giant building with only one or two ways out?

On Sunday, Lt. Gov. Patrick told CNN, “We stand strong together on the rock of faith and the rock of our constitution. We believe in our freedom and our liberties and our 2nd Amendment.”

And yet, mass shootings are as all-American as baseball. Is this freedom? Our kids are afraid to go to school, and we are afraid to send them. We are willing to consider arming teachers, limiting the number of doors, putting more police officers on campus, retrofitting entrances and exits, clear backpacks, kevlar backpacks, metal detectors, bulletproof glass, and new and improved lockdown drills.

We are willing to consider turning our schools into prisons. We are willing to consider everything. Everything but guns.

The decimation of decency

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Photo credit: The Daily Kos

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More than a week after White House staffer Kelly Sadler allegedly said that Senator John McCain, suffering from terminal brain cancer, is “dying anyway,” making his vote on CIA nominee Gina Haspel irrelevant, there remains no public apology.

No apology, though McCain’s daughter Meghan says Ms. Sadler promised one. No apology, though any decent public servant, any decent human being, would have clamored to give one. No apology, because this is the No Apology Administration, led by a man who once said, without a scintilla of remorse, that McCain is only “a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

We have grown both exhausted and accustomed. We are not surprised. We now both tolerate and expect, from our highest office, this decimation of decency.

And yet the sea of red “Make America Great Again” hats we witness at Trump rallies would have us believe differently.

As recently as last week, hardcore Trump supporters lined up outside for hours awaiting his rally in Elkhart, Indiana. Inside, the packed crowd cheered with abandon when he proclaimed, “America is being respected again!” He then touted his upcoming summit with North Korea, reminding us of his unique powers of persuasion while getting in his customary dig at the American free press. “You remember everybody in the fake news, when they were saying he’s going to get us into a nuclear war?” he said to boos. “And you know what gets you into nuclear wars, and you know what gets you into other wars? Weakness.”

Ah, the perception of weakness. Or, as we have come to know it, Trumpian kryptonite.

So long to doing what is decent, what is right. So long to the delicate and time-honored art of diplomacy. Like the offering of an apology, diplomacy in the Trump era means weakness, and if we know nothing else about our dear leader by now, we most certainly know this: he operates with a singular, destroy-the-enemy determination, and he reminds us of this regularly, as he did in his May 4 speech before an adoring NRA crowd when, after throwing a printed Wall Street Journal article theatrically to the ground, he bellowed, “I love fighting battles.”

And while he bellows and fights, Americans pay. We still can’t afford decent healthcare, mass shootings remain the norm, his proposed tariffs threaten farm exports, and we have withdrawn from our allies in everything from the Paris Climate Accord to the Iran Nuclear deal. Refugees trying to enter the U.S. illegally will soon be met with an unconscionable decree, family separation, because we are now people who rip children from the arms of their mothers as punishment. We even champion the importing of elephant trophies, which will no doubt increase their slaughter by uber-wealthy, big-game hunters, one of whom is the president’s own son. And for what?

“This is not who we are,” I often hear. And yet, our president’s own public appearances prove otherwise. More than a year post-election, while goading his supporters to scream at, or even spit at, the free press, he looks out upon that sea of red “Make America Great Again” hats along with t-shirts that still read things like “Trump that bitch” and “Hillary sucks but not like Monica.” And he revels in it.

I recall the story billionaire businessman Richard Branson told about meeting our future president back in the 1990s. “I thought we would have an interesting conversation about a whole range of issues,” Branson said, but “he just spent the whole lunch talking about five people he rung up to try to get help from … and how these people had refused to help him and how his life’s mission was to going to be to destroy these people.”

This is the man we elected President of our United States. This is, I would argue, exactly who we are.

On May 15, the president spent considerable time on Capitol Hill with Republican senators. Afterward, it was reported that no one—not a single lawmaker in the room—challenged him or even mentioned the “he’s dying anyway” comment about cancer-stricken war hero McCain or that a public apology would be the decent thing to do. How could they, a person inside the meeting reported, “He talked nearly the entire time.”

Are we great again yet?

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On Friday, 93 year-old President George H.W. Bush spent a heartbreaking and exhausting day by his wife’s casket, greeting the 5,000 mourners who came to pay their respects. And the next morning, as we awaited the funeral of First Lady Barbara Bush, our current president awoke at his Florida country club and fired off a round of tweets that included words like flunkie, crooked, destroy, drunk/drugged, trouble, lying, witch hunt, and horrible. Then he played golf.

This is the state of things.

Last week, as the president’s longtime lawyer dominated headlines for being under criminal investigation, a real head-scratcher slipped under the radar. The Department of Health and Human Services redirected federal funds from teen pregnancy prevention to programs that strictly teach abstinence. Yes, I said abstinence. Abstinence that did not work in the 1950s and will not work now. If this administration is serious about being pro-life, why not adopt a program like the one in Colorado, where they have documented a 50% drop in teen pregnancy that has led to 64% fewer abortions?

Abstinence? The Trump administration may as well have driven a stake into the heart of pro-lifers.

On the international front, President Trump played golf last week with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe while playing at an ill-advised trade war with China. According to financial analysts at Forbes, new Chinese levies could devastate U.S. pork farmers, fruit and nut growers, and Midwest soy bean producers.  Not to mention what could happen to steel prices and the cost of popular electronics like cell phones. Contrary to the president’s claims, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) was never a bad deal. It just wasn’t his deal. And his ego is about to put American workers and families in jeopardy.

Speaking of families, in April 2017 the president saw horrifying pictures of “beautiful little babies” killed by a Syrian gas attack, so he dropped his first bombs while eating “most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you’ve ever seen.” Remember that? This month, he saw more pictures and he dropped more bombs. But what of the thousands of displaced women and children, those so-called “beautiful little babies”? We have accepted only 11 Syrian refugees this year. Eleven. Where are the pro-life advocates? How do you say “I’m pro-life!” while backing a president unwilling to take in mothers and children?

At a Waffle House in Nashville, a man killed 4 people with an assault rifle. We have had more than 30 mass shootings this year. The year is only 4 months old.

Thankfully, there is some good news. The Trump tax cuts, passed four short months ago, are already paying off. A machinist in Dayton, Ohio tells the New York Times he’s banking $30 more per paycheck, and his buddies are seeing anywhere from $2 to $40 extra every two weeks. The real boon, however, is on Wall Street. In the first quarter alone, the six largest banks reported near-record profits of $3.6B, putting them on pace to save a whopping $19B this year. It sure is good to see the president putting those big city elites in their place, is it not?

I keep thinking about 93 year-old President Bush, a gracious man laying his sweetheart of 73 years to rest. As president he said, “I take as my guide the hope of a saint: In crucial things, unity; in important things, diversity; in all things, generosity.”

I hear Trump voters say are happy, thrilled even, with the man they voted for. A man who demands that private citizens (like political opponents and the former FBI Director) be thrown in jail without due process. A man credibly accused of having unprotected sex with a porn star while his wife nursed their newborn, then allegedly paid to keep her quiet 10 days before his election.

A man who—as mourners celebrated the extraordinary life of Barbara Bush and worried over her ailing, heartbroken husband—played his 109th round of golf and tweeted slurs about James Comey, Hillary Clinton, Loretta Lynch, witch hunts, the “fake and disgusting news” media, and pondered which convicted criminals he’d dare to pardon.

This is the state of things. Are we great again yet?

 

How much longer can we sugarcoat our racist attitudes?

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At $27,000, the antique desk was so laughably beyond my budget I gave up and made for the door, but the quick-thinking saleswoman scuttled my escape. “If you’re looking for something simpler,” she said, “we have a storage shop down the street with some rougher items. I’d be happy to walk you down if you’d like to take a look.”

I tried to say no, but I’d driven all the way to Bloomfield and my back was killing me from working long hours on my couch. Would it hurt to take a look?

The storage shop was, indeed, rougher but still way too pricey, so I gave up on desks and gravitated toward an old table I thought might work. Eager to make a sale, the woman rattled off a potential discount, a description, and a civics lesson. “That piece was built around 1870, right after the Civil War. You can see one of the legs has been replaced and a corner was broken off. It’s had a rough go,” she chuckled, “kind of like The South.” While I looked the table over more closely she filled the quiet with talk of southern pride, how the war was all about states’ rights, and how her own ancestors had fought and died for our values.

I recall this story whenever someone explains why, despite his many flaws and moral failings, they voted for Donald Trump. We suffered 8 years under Obama, they often say. Or, I got tired of being politically correct. Or, we need to keep foreigners from coming here and our taking jobs. Or, a favorite of late, the Democrats want to take away our 2nd Amendment rights.

Like the antique saleswoman with her version of the Civil War, we tell the story that makes us feel best. Because surely we did not vote for Donald Trump because he is a powerful, wealthy white man with a history of racial discrimination (see: the Central Park Five) , or because he questioned the legitimacy of our first black president (see: birtherism) , or because he promised to ban all Muslims, stem the tide of hispanics at our border, return jobs to rural white America, or protect white gun owners.

Or did we?

In a recent interview, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu explained that southerners need to stop glossing over, stop sugarcoating. We need to “quit saying that the Civil War was not about slavery. Quit saying that the Civil War was some kind of noble cause. It wasn’t. The Civil War was fought to destroy the United States of America, not to put it back together. It was fought over the cause of slavery. And for some reason we have a difficult time dealing with that issue.”

On April 6, during a South Carolina town hall, Congressman Ralph Norman laid a loaded gun on a restaurant table. Norman has a conceal carry permit. He insisted laws are already on the books and it was all okay. He smiled and said, “I pulled it out to make a point that guns don’t shoot. People shoot.”

But what if Ralph Norman wasn’t white? Could a black man walk into a crowded restaurant, lay a loaded gun on the table, smile and say, it’s okay folks, I have a permit and that’s the law, I’m just making a point that guns don’t kill people?

Of course not. Not without getting himself killed.

Mayor Landrieu is right. We southerners have a difficult time with unpleasant facts. Six months post-Hurricane Maria, 60,000 Puerto Rican Americans remain without power. In Flint, Michigan, more than 1,400 days have passed since residents have had clean, safe water. The women and children dying from chemical attacks in Syria are the very refugees, the Muslims, the Trump administration has insisted are not welcome here. The president is deploying the National Guard to the Mexican border to keep a few hundred Honduran refugees from finding asylum (and low-skilled jobs) here.

Would we tolerate 1,400 days without clean water in a white Lexington suburb? Imagine the uproar if we treated post-hurricane Houston like we have Puerto Rico? What kind of military response would we deploy to save Christian white women and children from a chemical weapons attack? Does the president’s protection of our beloved 2nd Amendment apply equally to black and white Americans?

Like with the $27,000 desk, we have to think about what is too costly for our comfort. The Civil War was not fought over states’ rights; it was fought over slavery. We did not elect Donald Trump because we despised Hillary Clinton; we elected him because, after 8 years with a black president, he was a powerful, wealthy white man who promised to make white America comfortable again.

What price are we willing to pay to keep sugarcoating it?

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Donald J. Trump has been president 14 months. I’m curious — how’s he doing, what are your thoughts?

Christian women are standing by their man. Boy, does that familiar.

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We’ve all seen the flyer, the one distributed by Chaplain Lee Watts, Bible study leader at the Kentucky State Capitol, advertising his March 9 prayer breakfast.

I recalled this flyer, the one Chaplain Watts insisted was misunderstood, as I watched a group of self-described Christian women in Dallas defend the president while dismissing Stormy Daniels during her 60 Minutes interview. “This is a porn star,” one woman sneered. “Why are we giving it any credibility? And the fact that she now wants to come out with a story because she’s afraid for her children? My goodness! What did you tell the kiddos about your full-time job?!” Another woman adding, “Should we believe the President of the United States or a strippper/porn star?”

These women still respect the president they voted for. Like the cartoon woman on Chaplain Watts’s flyer, they think negative stories about Trump are nothing but fake news. Why? Because they believe God ordained Trump to be president. And they are standing by their man.

They are not alone. Tony Perkins, prominent Evangelical and president of the Family Research Council, recently said about the president, “We kind of gave him, all right, you get a mulligan. You get a do-over here,” adding that Evangelicals are “tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists.”

But what if President Obama had behaved like Trump. Would Evangelicals, or anyone, have given him a mulligan?

Imagine if a porn star and a Playboy model insisted Obama had had unprotected sex with them, saying they reminded him of his daughter. What if it had been Obama on the radio as Howard Stern called his daughter a piece of ass, responding, “Yeah, she’s really something, and what a beauty, that one. If I weren’t happily married and, ya know, her father…”

Imagine if it was Obama who had denigrated a Gold Star family or mocked a handicapped reporter during the campaign. What if Obama had stood on a debate stage and defended the size of his … hands … saying, “[Marco Rubio] referred to my hands if they’re small, something else must be small. I guarantee you there’s no problem. I guarantee you.”

Imagine if Obama had gone to Puerto Rico after an historically horrific hurricane and shot paper towels into the crowd like he was playing basketball. Imagine further that, even after months of American citizens on that island being without power and hundreds of deaths, he never mentioned Puerto Rico again.

Imagine if Obama, after a mass school shooting, had not spent a considerable amount of time with families and the community before leading a prayer vigil. Imagine, instead, that he’d flown in late and unannounced on a Friday night, snapped a few press photos, and then spent the rest of his weekend holed up a few miles down the road at a posh country club.

Imagine if Obama had called Mexicans rapists then insisted Mexico pay for a border wall they never wanted nor supported. Then imagine, knowing all the while that Mexico would not pay, he tried to bilk billions from our military budget to cover his promises.

Imagine, if you will, an Obama-supporting Bible study leader at the Kentucky State Capitol distributing a flyer for his prayer breakfast with the words, “why the president is righteous and those against him are wicked.”

Remember when Trump said, prophetically it now seems, during the campaign, “The polls, they say I have the most loyal people. Did you ever see that? Where I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay? It’s like incredible.”

As one Christian woman in that Dallas group said after watching Stormy Daniels on 60 Minutes, “I know that when I voted for him, I wasn’t voting for a choirboy.”

Don’t look now, but these women sound eerily like another woman in a 60 Minutes interview from 1992, when she said about then-president Clinton, “I’m not sitting here like some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette. I’m sitting here because I love him and I respect him.”

I guess God ordained Clinton to be president, too. Does he get a mulligan?

Collateral Damage

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Photo credit: NPR

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“American farmers are collateral damage in Trump’s trade war.” This was the March 23 headline in Mother Jones magazine, in stark contrast to the president’s words just three days earlier. “Our Nation was founded by farmers,” he tweeted. “Our independence was won by farmers. And our continent was tamed by farmers. Our farmers always lead the way — we are PROUD of them, and we are DELIVERING for them!”

But according to Mother Jones, Missouri’s farm bureau members are sick with worry. “China’s threat to limit its purchases of US soybeans and pork sent a chill through the grain belt. In its announcement on Friday [in response to President Trump’s threat of a trade war], China threatened a 25 percent tariff on US pork, imperiling a $1.16 billion market.”

Consequential headlines like these tend to get lost under the heavy pile of chaos this president buries us under on a daily basis.

Consider the last couple of weeks.

He fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Not in person; not on the phone; but on Twitter. No matter your opinion of Tillerson, he was an honorable man who served his country and was deserving of respect. What kind of president humiliates his own senior staff in this manner?

He congratulated Russia’s Vladimir Putin on winning what John McCain called a “sham” election, even after his own staff wrote DO NOT CONGRATULATE in all caps on his briefing materials.

He stated his intent to meet with North Korea’s Kim Jung Un, then fired his National Security Advisor. Lest you think this is no big deal, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, retired Admiral James Stavridis, had this terrifying response: “You look for the national security apparatus as guardrails around the presidency because of the immense power that’s invested in the executive branch. I feel like those guardrails are drifting. God help us if we lose Jim Mattis.”

A key member of the president’s legal team resigned. (Note: Obama did not need, nor have, a legal team.)

He fired Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe just 26 hours before he was to receive his pension after 20 years of service protecting this country. How did McCabe learn he’d been fired? A friend saw it on TV and called him at home, after 10 pm, on a Friday night.

Do you have a pension? Imagine losing your pension, your livelihood, your family’s security, this way.

And who can look past the veritable car wreck of credible allegations that the president had not one, but two, affairs in the months after his wife Melania gave birth. One long-term, with a Playboy model who says he offered to put her up in a New York City Apartment. One with a porn star. All as his wife nursed their infant boy.

This is, in a word, damaging.

Sure, President Trump put Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court and passed huge tax cuts for the wealthy. But he has also implemented ill-advised tariffs—causing Gary Cohn, his top economic advisor, to resign—that could severely damage American businesses and farmers. In the words of Blake Hurst, a corn and soybean farmer and president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, “Folks are getting pretty nervous.”

If you don’t want to listen to me, how about Peter Wehner, an Evangelical Christian who served in 3 Republican presidential administrations (Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush). In a recent interview with David Axelrod he said, “We think the Gorsuch nomination was a good thing, but on his treatment of women, his pathological lies, his denigration of the poor, and his attacks are something that are really troubling and problematic. And the hush money, the $130,000 for a porn star while your third wife was at home with your child” is just complete hypocrisy.

Mr. Wehner also wrote in The New York Times, “I hoped the Trump era would be seen as an aberration and made less ugly by those who might have influence over the president. That hasn’t happened. Rather than Republicans and people of faith checking his most unappealing sides, the president is dragging down virtually everyone within his orbit.”

Would we have tolerated this constant chaos, this instabilty, from a Hillary Clinton, or any other, president?

No. We would not.

Turns out most Americans will be the Trump presidency’s collateral damage. In the words of Adm. Stavridis, “God help us.”